The Life of Elves by Muriel Barbery

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Translated by Alison Anderson

Reviewed by Annabel

If like me, you read and loved Muriel Barbery’s bestselling novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which blended romance, philosophy and a teenaged genius with Gallic wit and charm, now seven years later, you may wonder what to expect from her new novel entitled The Life of Elves. There are some points of similarity – we have not one but two talented young heroines, and there is plenty of philosophical discussion within its pages, but otherwise it has a completely different style. This dark fantasy is instead akin to the misty faerie world of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, (but at a third of the number of pages).

It is divided into three sections. In the first, ‘Births’ two baby girls find their new families. We start off in Burgundy with Maria:

It was Auntie Angèle who, when the time came to go and round up the hens, found the poor thing staring at her with her all-engulfing black eyes and her little amber face, so visibly human that Angèle stood poised with one foot in the air, until she got a hold of herself and began to shout a child in the night! And lifted her up to take her inside, this little girl whom the snowflakes had spared even though it was still snowing a blizzard.

As the foundling Maria grows up in the village, the farmers are blessed with fertile soil and good hunting. But one autumn when she is twelve, an unseasonal raging snowstorm occurs and Maria is missing. Farmer Marcelot mutters, ‘They’d better not come back for her.’ Maria is found in a clearing talking to a creature which might have been a wild boar.

Meanwhile, in Abruzzo, Italy, another girl is growing up ‘cared for by a country priest and his old, illiterate housekeeper.’

Paolo the shepherd had grasped that it was something other than her facility with Italiain that had left a scent of prodigy in her wake, and one evening he whispered to her, It’s the music, little one, isn’t it, it’s the music you hear? In response, she looked up at him with her eyes as blue as the torrents from the glacier, with a gaze in which the angels of mystery sang.

A piano is procured and Clara is clearly a prodigy. Arrangements are made for her to go to the city to learn from the Maestro.

The second main section of the novel alternates between the two girls, as they develop their talents, Maria remaining in Burgundy, Clara now in Rome. The girls have no knowledge of each other but their growing skills are drawing them closer together.

They are watched over by the Inner Elfin Council who are very worried. One of their kind would destroy the human world, but the Council want to live in harmony with humans – to reopen the bridge to the Elves’ world of mists. Maria who is elf-born but of human appearance is the powerful elemental bridge, and half-elven Clara with her music will amplify and focus her power.

As the dark forces gather strength, nature begins to lose control. Maria and Clara must be protected and their assorted guardians, some elven, some human, take steps to do this, but war is coming. They must have hope and faith in the two girls who hold their future in their hands.

In honing her world, Barbery has incorporated a plethora of influences from around the globe, be they religious, spiritual, mystical or derived from folk and fairytales. Many of the supporting characters use storytelling to educate, telling parables or tales of ancestors. As the Maestro tells Clara:

Without the land, one’s soul is empty, but without stories, the land is silent. You must tell stories when you play.

The Burgundy countryside is described in all its seasonal lushness and wintry splendour; nature is in charge here, for the moment. But alongside this is the world of mists and mystery, and the growing darkness.

I could tell you of many literary and movie parallels, from the Jedi Force in Star Wars, to Tolkien’s elves (naturally) via Rowling’s battling wizards, but for me, it is the world and period setting of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell that comes closest to the feel of Barbery’s enigmatic novel.

There is much left unsaid, unexplained, remaining deliberately mysterious, and Barbery’s text, in Alison Anderson’s translation, has a slightly formal, period manner which reassures us that not quite knowing exactly what is happening is probably the best thing, we’ll be told everything when we need to know it! In an interview for Gallimard, Barbery intimates that some things will become clearer in a second volume.

Maria and Clara may only be twelve years old, but conceptually, The Life of Elves is not for children; it is a fairytale for adults about living in harmony, the power of nature, and the perils of not listening to stories. This novel has steadily grown on me as I’ve thought about it – now I can’t wait for volume two.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and wishes she could play the piano like Clara.

Muriel Barbery, The Life of Elves (Gallic Books, London) 978-1910477212, , 288 pp., flapped paperback.

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